U.S. Senate Bill Authorizes $2 Billion for Everglades

WASHINGTON — Efforts to reduce Lake Okeechobee water discharges befouling Florida’s coasts took a key step forward Thursday with Senate passage of a bill that would authorize nearly $2 billion for Everglades restoration.

Now it’s up to the House.

By a 95-3 vote, the Senate passed the Water Resources and Development Act, which includes $1.95 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to carry out the Central Everglades Planning Project.

Both Florida senators – Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio – voted for the bill, one of the few major measures that has won broad bipartisan backing in Congress this year.

The project is designed to steer water on its original course southward from the lake and away from the St. Lucie River to the east and the Caloosahatchee River to the southwest, where discharges have contaminated shorelines and caused environmental and economic havoc.

Lake Okeechobee

Discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

The House is considering its own version of a water projects bill that would authorize the same amount of Everglades restoration money. It has passed out of committee but hasn’t been scheduled for a floor vote.

The Senate bill would fund a number of water-related projects considered crucial to communities around the nation trying to widen ports, rebuild flood-ravaged neighborhoods, or improve drinking water systems. The bill includes $100 million to replace lead pipes that contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan.

Everglades funding gained new significance this year after toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon on Florida’s east coast drew national attention. Presidential candidates weighed in on the crisis and members of Congress joined activists in delivering bottles of the contaminated water to Capitol Hill.

Nelson called Thursday’s vote “a big win for Florida.” The state is partnering with Washington on an ambitious effort to restore the River of Grass and send Lake Okeechobee discharges toward Florida Bay, where it flowed before decades of development redirected the water east and west.

The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were connected to the lake about a century ago to drain the Everglades for development and farming. Today, the rivers function as a flood plain for the lake, each receiving large, unnatural discharges when lake levels get too high.

Large water releases into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie have been one cause of algae blooms on both coasts.

“We’ve seen firsthand the effect these toxic discharges can have on Florida’s waterways and the local communities that depend on them,” Nelson said after the vote. “Getting this project approved is a significant step forward in our ongoing efforts to restore the Everglades and provide folks some much-needed relief.”

Half the money authorized by the bill would be federal. The other half would come from state or local sources.

Dawn Shirreffs, senior Everglades policy adviser for the Everglades Foundation, said authorization of the Central Everglades Planning Project could redirect as much as 67 billion gallons of water per year to improve habitat in Florida Bay.

“This is particularly important for spotted seatrout and snook, but also helps prevent future seagrass die-offs that affect the entire fishery,” she said.

After the vote, Rubio said there’s still work to do.

“Sen. Nelson and I have done our part in getting this important Everglades restoration and water quality improvement project passed in the Senate,” he said. “Now it’s time for the House to follow suit and get it passed into law.”

The Senate bill authorizes several other Florida projects a well:

  • Picayune Strand Restoration Project. An additional $113 million would be authorized for the project in Collier County to fund new features and improvements to the original design. This amount would be on top of money originally approved in 2007, bringing the project’s total authorized cost to $618 million.
  • Port Everglades dredging. The bill authorizes $322.7 million to deepen the main shipping channels at Port Everglades in Broward County from 42 feet to 48 feet.
  • Flagler County Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project. The bill authorizes $30.78 million for a beach renourishment project to extend an existing dune in central Flagler Beach 2.6 miles to help protect State Road A1A, the only north-south hurricane evacuation route for communities along the coast.
  • Daytona Beach Flood Protection project. The bill authorizes the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study for the project.

Source: TC Palm